Essay and interview with New York-based artist Samira Abbassy for Australian online platform JANE PRIVÈE Second Chapter (July)
THE INDIVIDUAL BECOMES UNIVERSAL
In Conversation with Samira Abbassy
By Nina Mdivani
Samira Abbassy’s panels, drawings, sculptures strike with their gravity and complexities. We see human figures in various existential scenarios. Some figures strive for their identities, others cry out for a deeper connection or a spiritual clarity. The artist, born in 1965 within an Arabian minority in southwestern Iran, immigrated at an early age to a small town in the county of Kent in the United Kingdom, where she struggled with defining her own identity—a story that is shared by many immigrants. So, studying art and developing her unique visual language became a powerful way for Abbassy to overcome the anxiety of a person who needs to repeatedly assert herself among strangers and within new social ecosystems.
Asserting a new identity always means parting ways with the old one. In this process, Abbassy defined her new identity through synthesising what was present to her as an art student in the UK and what was available as part of her familial and cultural legacies from Iran. The result is a rich, complex artistic practice that spans the last three decades and touches on the themes of war, spirituality, trauma, and a woman’s plight, all with central human experiences at the core. Feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, wanting to belong, and an inability to do so are visible to viewers of her panels and sculptures.
Abbassy starts with ideas and works directly on the panels, working and reworking her visions, building up fantastical, sparse spaces with figures. When we commune with these figures as viewers, we can’t help a feeling of strangeness—these beings feel alien to us, and yet we also feel related to them in some ambiguous way. According to the artist, her figures are archetypal and, hence, more general representation of human states. Nonetheless, we feel close to them because their experience speaks to our individual selves. Abbassy simultaneously shows us two actions developing on the outside and the inside of her protagonists. In a way, she uses multilevel storytelling that is reminiscent of James Joyce and other notable post-modernists—a narrative told through a protagonist inside the densely-constructed spiritual and cultural context of the larger whole.
Here, time has stopped here and protagonists exist inside a limbo. Triptychs of Hans Memling (1430-1494) come to mind, with his figurative representations of the Virgin Mary and Christ at the center of the canvases—simultaneously divine and human. Yet, flatly rendered portraits of the Qajar school of Persian painting of 1780s and stylised clouds of the Chinese masters of 19th century are also present in Abbassy’s practice through a thin prism. The artist creates an enigmatic way of storytelling that begs her viewer to delay a construction of meaning; to stop, to reflect, to reconsider what one observes. To understand this enigma better, I asked Abbassy a few questions about her practice.
Nina Mdivani: What does the word ‘narrative’ mean to you?
Samira Abbassy: I understand narrative to be a set of relationships which are built up in the making of the painting. When there is more than one figure, their relationship becomes the story. Even if there is only one figure, a story emerges about who and what this figure represents. The internal dynamics of the figure becomes the narrative, where the temporal can be incorporated. Narrative is when there is more than one element set against another.
Figures you depict are usually situated in open spaces, not enclosed in any type of constructed environments. Where are they and what brought them here?
The ambiguous space is a psychic place. It places these figures in the realm other than our physical reality. The figure carries the narrative rather than the situational place. The non-specific place is like that in a myth; it is not a place but a state of mind.
Women with long black hair are the dominant protagonists of your art. They have slightly stylised, mask-like faces. Do you assign any individual features to them, or do they only represent a Woman, a Human Being as a universal form?
They are ambiguous archetypes based on myself or imagined ancestors which carry the psychological properties. They are the vehicles of the narrative. They could also be said to represent the divine feminine aspect, or even more esoterically, they are souls in the physical realm.
Flowing bodies of water as well as herbal motives are recurring in your drawings. Are they elements of the Garden of Eden or any other metaphoric place? Or do they play a role of a visual device, a method of situating your protagonists in an abstract space, loosely connected to the forces of nature?
Depending on the particular narrative, the Nature motifs: ocean, garden, cosmic space etc. reflect the internal states of the figures. At times they can appear overwhelmed by the enormity of the ocean or dwell calmly within a garden of Eden realm. Their elemental surroundings can be internalised, by becoming flower/fire/water motifs seeping into the figure. The cosmic laws of nature are fractal and so are reflected within the human psyche.
In European iconography butterflies tend to be associated with a resurrected soul, or with a person unbound by physical constraints of the material world. In your works butterfly wings are elements of women’s dresses, ethereal bodies and souls. Is this an allegorical cry to freedom?
Not only in European iconography, butterflies and birds are universal symbols representing ideas around the resurrected soul, transmutation, and flight. Their purity transcends physical laws of nature, unburdened by material constraints, they are released from the body to ultimate freedom.
Due to your Iranian-British upbringing and education, to which visual culture do you feel you belong as an artist or as a woman?
I am doing my best to integrate these seemingly disparate cultural identities by merging their visual languages. I am aiming to make a hybrid painting/sculpture that can be read universally. Culture, by its nature, is a continuous hybrid.
Abbassy’s work has been shown internationally: the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, and the Middle East. Her art has been acquired for private and public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, the British Government Art Collection, the Burger Collection, the Donald Rubin collection (Rubin Museum, New York), the Farjam Collection (Dubai, United Arab Emirates), the Devi Foundation (India), the Omid Foundation (Iran), and the Grey Art Gallery’s New York University Collection. She has been awarded multiple grants and residencies in the US and beyond. Yet, every day she continues her practice in a studio of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Studio Program that she co-founded in 1998 in New York.